Indian Rock: Us and Them
“Us, and them.
And after all we’re only ordinary men.
Me, and you.
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.”
- “Us and Them”, Pink Floyd
It is strange how these words from Messrs Roger Waters and Richard Wright symbolise what the underground music scene in India is for bands that play English music. The talent is bursting at the seams, but there are, seemingly, no takers. Cops routinely break up gigs, sponsors are hard to find, cutting an album takes an aeon, even for a proven band.
A glaring example of this prejudice against Indian rock music is my experience at a recent set of gigs. I was at the SAARC Bands Festival — a three day musical extravaganza bringing together all the folk music outfits from across the subcontinent. Indian Ocean were the main act on the last day, and a band of their reputation had to cut short their set due to intervention by the Delhi police. The following week, a cultural fest under the same umbrage, playing what is apparently ‘true’ Indian folk music, with the ‘manjiras’ and ‘dhols’ and sexually frustrated sounding vocalists, was allowed to continue way beyond the deadline. I know this, not because Tyler knows this. I was there!
At another recent gig, one of the biggest college fests in India was halted at 10:15PM by the Mumbai police, a concert that was headlined by two of India’s biggest bands, Thermal And A Quarter and Zero. Now, for the layperson, I would like to tell you that most headlining bands play for about two hours, including whatever time is required for change ups. Zero played for a meager 50 minutes. All in all, a disappointment for fans who were standing in lines for upwards of three hours.
And they say the scene is improving.
These discouraging signs for Indian rock music aren’t a recent development. It has been this way since the ’80s, when Farhad Wadia started the Independence Rock movement at Rang Bhavan, Mumbai. “To yeh thé ab tak ke samachar, ab prastut hai pashchatya sangeet ka karyakram…” was the closest one ever got to “western music” growing up in a small town in India in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Then MTV happened. The Gulf War forced open India’s gates to foreign invasion. And we are eternally grateful to them, for introducing Justin Timberlake, and Shakira to an audience that already possessed an attention span that was shorter than a nano second. The scope for original rock music in India should’ve grown, but it waned during those dark years in the early ’90s.
Cops routinely break up gigs, sponsors are hard to find, cutting an album takes an aeon, even for a proven band.
Not everything that happened then was bad, though. We were blessed with Rock Machine/Indus Creed and Parikrama. Indus Creed had a few videos aired on MTV, but the audience’s reception wasn’t to the pleasure of most corporate honchos. Even Parikrama, the few legends that the scene here in India has, built a fan base playing covers throughout the ’90s. Pentagram, Bollywood music mogul Vishal Dadlani’s electronica quartet, is India’s fastest selling English band, and have the international sound needed to create an impact abroad that will make the industry honchos sit up and take notice. But I guess our romeos on the street need Vishalji to keep Himesh bhaiyya company on the sets of some inane talent competition show. The lack of personal and social expression in Indian film music can be the topic of another day’s discussion, so the less said about it, the better.
The Indian rock scene seems to have become a melting pot of influences, and comes across as more open to experimentation than bands outside. Add to it the plethora of options to experiment with, the rich and diverse Indian classical and folk music. This is where Indian rock bands have an edge, and a chance of creating music that stands apart from mainstream rock elsewhere. But no one in the country seems to have the time to give the good (or bad) ol’ boys of rock ‘n’ roll a chance.
Even a band of the caliber of Them Clones, finalists at the first Channel [V] Launchpad concert, have been busy producing an album for about three years now. As has been the case with many a talented Indian band, making English music has been the death knell for a career in music, at least one that might promise any financial remuneration. Once you start an English rock/alternative band, it is as good as rendering yourself untouchable, as far as record labels go.
Not that the record labels are to blame. The popcorn-eating, west-aping, commercially glossed-over youth of our now culturally bankrupt nation likes to listen to what the cool kids in the You-Es passed over as old stuff a while ago. Nirvana, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Linkin Park and a host of other sold out bands find safe hermitage in the minds of the senseless listener in India. Of course, listening to the stuff keeps them in touch with what the West is doing.
And yet, there are the takers for Hindi bands.
Bands like Euphoria have infused their music with local flavours from north India. And they sang in Hindi. Indian Ocean’s ‘Kandisa’ is another brilliant example of how rock fuses well with Indian folk sounds. A new breed of underground rock music needs to be mentioned here as well. The “Sutta” song and its ilk — India’s answer to indie music abroad — go a step further. Their nonchalant use of Hindi expletives ensured instant stardom among campus youth, and those long out of it (but not quite the geriatric generation).
Many bands still produce music in English — purely as an interest, and as a passion. The lack of takers for their sound results in bands doing their own promotions, and running from pillar to post to get gigs, while dealing with legal and police issues. It is a commendable achievement for the crusaders of modern music today, and the internet has been their ally. Free downloads, and gig promotion has been made easier with the virtuality of it all, and the Indian music industry has been shown the proverbial finger.
The underground scene will not die here. Not as long as we have Junkyard Groove, and the Superfuzz, or Bhayanak Maut and recent Livewire winners, Amidst The Chaos, nor will Prestorika and Cyanide let the haters take centre stage. Doubters be damned. Us guitar-starved music lovers will keep them soulless musicians at bay. As the cliché that gives everyone the passage to cool-ness these days goes, rock on.